Federal Water Tap, January 15: Record-Breaking Cost of Severe Weather Disasters

The Rundown

Billion-dollar-plus weather disasters last year did more than $300 billion in damages and killed at least 362 people. A bipartisan group of House members publishes an infrastructure proposal. Federal crop insurance subsidies increased in tandem with commodity crop prices, the Congressional Budget Office finds. The House passes a bill approving use of federal funds to build an Arizona tribe’s water supply system. The EPA orders a shoe manufacturer to assess groundwater contamination in Michigan. And lastly, President Trump promises to deliver world-class infrastructure to rural communities.

“We are proposing infrastructure reforms to ensure that our rural communities have access to the best roadways, railways, and waterways anywhere in the world. And that’s what’s happening. We’re going to be spending the necessary funds, and we’re going to get you taken care of. It’s about time.” — President Trump speaking at the annual convention of the American Farm Bureau. Rural infrastructure in America is, for water systems, far, far from world-class. Improving it, experts say, will take more than just building new systems. It will take management and maintenance.

In context: 2018 Preview: What Not to Ignore about Water Infrastructure

By the Numbers

16: Weather disasters in the U.S. in 2016 that exceeded $1 billion in damages. The average number of such events in the last five years (2013-17) was 11.6 per year. The 2017 disasters include hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria; a summer drought in the northern Plains; and fires and floods in California. They killed at least 362 people. (The figures for Hurricane Maria are disputed). (NOAA)

$306.2 billion: Economic cost of the billion-dollar disasters in 2017, a new record. (NOAA)

News Briefs

Together We Can
An eight-person working group of the bipartisan House Problem Solvers caucus (yes) published a report on rebuilding U.S. infrastructure. The 16-page document includes standard fare such as increasing federal funding, incentivizing public-private partnerships, quickening the permitting process, preserving tax-free municipal bonds, and requiring recipients of federal funds to use American-made iron and steel.

The proposal also asks that projects costing more than $20 million and receiving federal funds conduct a 20-year life-cycle assessment. This evaluation would identify future operations and maintenance costs and search for long-term savings.

EPA Steps In to Michigan Groundwater Contamination Case
For months, Michigan regulators have been looking into groundwater contamination from Wolverine Worldwide’s former shoe manufacturing facility in Kent County, in the western part of the state, and a nearby dump site. Perfluorinated compounds dominate headlines, but soil and groundwater at the sites have high levels of chromium, lead, copper, arsenic, and other chemicals.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ordered Wolverine to assess the extent of the contamination.

Water Supply System for Arizona Tribe
Following the Senate’s lead, the House passed a bill affirming that the White Mountain Apache Tribe of Arizona can use funds from a federal water rights settlement to build a water supply system, which includes a 160-ft-tall dam on the North Fork of the White River, a treatment plant, and 60 miles of distribution pipe.

The settlement authorized $79 million for the project, but Congress has not yet appropriated the money.

Studies and Reports

Crop Insurance Costs Rise
The U.S. government paid an average of $8 billion a year in crop insurance premiums and related costs between 2007 and 2016, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Costs for the preceding 10 years averaged only $3 billion a year. Rising commodity prices were largely to blame. Congress has a chance to review crop insurance subsidies this year in farm bill negotiations.

On the Radar

Water Infrastructure Hearing
It’s a sequel. The Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works follows up last week’s water infrastructure hearing with another round of questioning on January 17, this time focusing on federal officials.

Handing Over Keys to the Dam or Canal
On January 17, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee holds a hearing on transferring title for Bureau of Reclamation facilities to local agencies. Reclamation supports transferring title because it reduces federal pressure to maintain systems. At least 30 title transfers have occurred since 1996, but a bill now in the House is designed to facilitate more of them.

Federal Water Tap is a weekly digest spotting trends in U.S. government water policy. To get more water news, follow Circle of Blue on Twitter and sign up for our newsletter.